Marx and Engels on the dialectics of nature

Marx_and_EngelsThe following quote from Volume 3 of the Selected Works goes beyond economics or political economy into a philosophical conception of nature, which for me seems close to some sort of truth and offers explanatory power which can be applied to many phenomena:

“The great basic thought is that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable…go through an uninterrupted process of becoming and passing away…For dialectical philosophy nothing is final, absolute, sacred. It reveals the transitory nature of everything and in everything; nothing can endure before it except the uninterrupted process of becoming and passing away, of endless ascendancy from the lower to the higher…The motion of matter is not merely crude mechanical motion, mere change of place, it is heat and light, electric and magnetic tension, chemical combination and dissociation, life and finally, consciousness.”

Having said all that, in my view there is no final ‘model’ of the things which we perceive, study and act upon. We can only view reality through the ‘software’ (our mind) that emerges from the ‘hardware’ (our brain and nervous system), so even the above conception, or any other, has its limits, and I find it helpful to be aware of this.


5 thoughts on “Marx and Engels on the dialectics of nature

  1. What Marx and Engels are talking about and Hegel before them, we would now call system behavior, networks, feedback effects, path dependence, complexity, emergence and so forth. The basic idea is similar if not the same.

    “The motion of matter is not merely crude mechanical motion, mere change of place, it is heat and light, electric and magnetic tension, chemical combination and dissociation, life and finally, consciousness,” is clearly a statement about biological evolution and the emergence of organic complexity.

    Nature is constantly testing alternatives in the biological and social worlds, which cannot be compared to the laws of nature of the inanimate physical world without oversimplification. Time is highly relevant in biological and social systems and processes, which are non-erdogic, whereas time can be disregarded in ergodic processes typical of static systems and physical science, where functions apply universally irrespective of time. Owing to this a dynamic and historical approach is required rather than a static one that seeks to discover timeless invariance that can be expressed as a function of variables.

    Nature generally doesn’t repeat experiments after the results are in because the results change the context and reflexivity is involves in more complex systems that leads to emergence. Hegel thought this was driven by the development of ideas, whereas Marx and Engels held that material conditions were foundational and changes in material conditions determinative.

    A key concept in Hegel’s dialectic, taken over my Marx and “stood on its head” by making material infrastructure do the work that ideas did in Hegel, is expressed by the German term Aufhebung, which is usually translated as “sublation.”

    I believe it corresponds pretty closely with emergence, where the past is subsumed into the future in a way that results in something new that could not be foreseen precisely in the antecedent conditions while bringing the past along with it.

    Emergence results in ontological uncertainty, since investigation of past and present conditions is not sufficient to yield all relevant information about future states of the system in question. Ontological uncertainty entails epistemological uncertainty, whereas epistemological uncertainly does not necessarily entail ontological uncertainty.

    Consistent with this, Marx and Engels give reasons why capitalism contains the seeds of its own eventual sublation into a new form of socio-economic organization as material conditions change, but they did not attempt to say just what the future state would look like other than in a very general way. The issue that they are dealing with at the time was explaining why the views of the anarchists with whom they were competing for intellectual space were wrong and misleading.

    Marx and Engels did not provide a worked out socialist economics for the very good reason that future material conditions were unknown and unknowable. That proved to be a wise choice in light of future developments, in technology, for example, that could not be foreseen at the time.

    • Thanks for your interesting and informative comment. I am currently reading Sean Creaven’s book Emergentist Marxism, which discusses at length some of the issues you raise. In particular, the fact that Marx and Engels, although predicting the replacement of capitalism by a new social system, did not try and work out the details. Creaven is clearly a socialist and sees socialism as an eventual necessity if the forces of production are to continue to develop. However he says that this is not inevitable. I am not so sure, as I don’t see myself as a socialist, despite being critical of capitalism in many of its various forms.

      Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism provides an interesting take on where society can go in the future, and the beginnings of how to get there, from a radical left perspective, and drawing on Marx’s writings among others. Although it is written for a wide audience and is not an academic text, it is full of ideas on these matters and is worth a read.

      Thanks again.

      • It is looking to me like the internal contradiction arising in capitalism is the the assumption of unlimited growth along with privileging of capital over labor (people) and land (environment). Pollution both as a health hazard and as a factor in climate change is already evident but not yet on the front burner as an issue. I think that is in the offing and it could change fast.

        The material conditions of production are also in the process of shifting owing to digital technology. Humanity seems to be on the cusp of new major period. The previous periods were the transition from hunting/gathering to agriculture to finance and industry to digitization, automation, and robotics, and AI. In the long haul this is likely the transition from the analog order to the digital order.

        No way to tell now how that is going to unfold in that it is emergent and a lot of adaptation is going on as both new types of opportunities and fresh challenges arise. But it is pretty certain that in the long view, many things are going to be different culturally and institutionally. While there is a lot of resistance to the pressure of globalization presently, there is no stopping given the way technology is shrinking the world and bringing individual people and entire peoples together.

        Socialism of some sort is developing since information and communication technologies are changing the social process, which is spilling over onto the political process. Inequality is becoming a serious political issue in addition to an economic one. At least some of Marx’s predictions about the transition away from capitalism seem to be emerging owing to shifting material conditions of production and the effect this is having socially, politically, and economically, which is manifesting culturally and institutionally.

      • That may all be true, but economic, technological, social and cultural changes have come about under capitalism since its inception without any transition to socialism. It is difficult to predict the future and we are undoubtedly living through another period of change with many social problems that need solving, but are we on the way to a different mode of production?

      • “That may all be true, but economic, technological, social and cultural changes have come about under capitalism since its inception without any transition to socialism.”

        Not so sure about that. Reading the history of liberalism, for example, the laissez-faire of economic liberalism as dominant politically lead to Dickensian time and a reaction that provoked the moderation of economic liberalism with greater social and political liberalism. The Civil War in the US ended slavery, and the old order in Europe was transformed after WWi into one based on political liberalism as representative democracy.

        Social unrest in the West during he Great Depression, along with a competitive socialist system developing in the USSR, resulted in the expansion of social democracy and the contraction of market fundamentalism. This was reversed to some degree by the coordinated attacks of economic liberals holding that economic and political liberalism are one in that democracy required unbridled economic liberalism for maximum efficiency in deployment of resources for growth, where per capital growth is equated with optimal prosperity — a rising tide lifts all boats.

        Some of the gains of social democracy that favored labor were rolled back beginning in the ’70’s and the effort still goes on by neoliberals to repeal the New Deal, but with somewhat limited success in comparison with the ideal of market fundamentalism, which practically guarantees state capture by an elite. See C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956). This was exacerbated by the changing nature of capitalism. See Paul Sweezy and Paul A. Baran, Monopoly Capital: An Essay on the American Economic and Social Order (1966).

        Presently, rising concern with inequality and the return of Dickensian times for the underclass even in the developed world has sparked a new effort to reinvigorate social democracy.

        In Marxist terminology the world order is still in the grip of “bourgeois liberalism” in which ownership of property dominates. But that is beginning to break down internally for several reasons, the first being that the drive for unlimited growth on which economic liberalism is based is running up against limits, and the profit rate is falling as capital increases its share over labor.

        The present state of capitalism is under stress. The usual remedy is co-opting labor by offering them a bit more but not enough to really make a difference for capital, bide time, and then ratchet up capital share again. Either this can go forever, or not. The alternative is greater influence of labor.

        State socialism as been tried and found wanting. However, social democracy in which property is owned and controlled by workers has not, and this is now the focus of many socialists. Peter Kropotkin, a younger contemporary of Marx and Engels envisioned voluntary worker associations, for example. This is already a multi-billion dollar industry in the US in the form of co-ops.

        It’s not difficult to envision liberalism transitioning from market fundamentalism as dominant politically as well as economically, to social democracy, to democratic socialism as a natural developmental process in which the paradoxes of liberalism arising from the trifecta of social, political and economic liberalism are progressively addressed and resolved.

        The is simply the working out of the fundamental question of ethic and social and political philosophy proposed in classical Greek thought — what constitutes living a good life in a good society? This involves the trifecta of personal liberty, cultural and institutional eqality, and solidarity in community. Humanity is still working on it but we have come a long way, albeit with many fits and starts, and twists and turns. But history seems to exhibit a liberal bias over the long haul.

        Marx realized this, as did Hegel. See the preface to Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Marx’s training was in philosophy. He was acquainted with both classical Greek philosophy and the modern debate, dominated in Germany at the time by Hegel. His dissertation was entitled, The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, an indication of where his philosophical sympathies lay.

        Marx was responding to the enduring questions in the context of his day. His involvement in economics is subservient to that and must be approached in that light.

        Specifically, Marx was writing about the transition he foresaw from bourgeois liberalism to a more integrated liberalism in which property is subservient to people instead of most of the people (labor) being subservient to property owners (capital and land). With labor commodified in a labor market that employers could control, much of the working day was wage slavery, often coupled with debt slavery that kept workers permanently bound. This transition is still in progress, and workers are now not only demanding more, but there is also a push for revisiting the system. Many young American workers identify more with socialism than capitalism and the works of Marx are being read again more widely in the West.

        Yes, this could be a blip, but it could also be a step in a process of system change that is both iterative and incremental.

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